On a bronze plaque outside Veterans Administration headquarters, across Lafayette Square from the White House, are the words of Abraham Lincoln, from his second inaugural address in 1865: ". . . to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan . . . ."

The war over which Lincoln presided ended 120 years ago.

And -- would you believe? -- the Veterans Administration is paying pensions to 19 widows and 73 children of Civil War veterans. It's also paying pensions to 14 surviving spouses and six children of veterans of the undeclared Indian wars, which covered a period between about 1817 and 1898.

"Children," in this context, the VA says, means "helpless adults."

For the most part, according to a VA official, the surviving Civil War widows were young brides of elderly veterans. A soldier discharged at age 25 in 1865, for example, would have been 65 in 1905; if he then married a 19-year-old woman, she'd now be 99, an uncommon but not implausible age.

Metro Scene's inquiry to the VA was triggered by the recent brief obituary of Walter Pleate, 109, who was the nation's oldest war veteran when he died Dec. 5. He enlisted during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

With his death, the VA said, 11 Spanish-American War pensioners are still alive, along with 5,791 surviving spouses and 836 children receiving benefits.

In the nation's history, by VA's account, there were about 38.3 million war participants, of whom nearly 1.1 million died during service. There are 27.8 million living ex-servicepeople from periods of war and peace, of whom 22.4 million are war veterans. Of those war veterans, 2.9 million were receiving government benefits as of Oct. 1.

Among this group receiving veterans benefits, nearly 1.6 million people served in World War II, while the second largest group of current beneficiaries is 626,225 servicepeople from what the VA describes as the Vietnam Era. Korea is next with 308,860 veteran beneficiaries, followed by World War I with 68,402. A total of 208,000 veterans of 1917-18 are still living.